It’s no surprise Maya Angelou’s letter to her 17-year-old self, part of Ellyn Spragins’ What I Know Now: Letter to My Younger Self, is the most resonant. Angelou’s note reads just like her poems. It’s radiant, song-like, with lessons inside lessons:
“Don’t let anybody raise you, you’ve been raised ... You will go home again when the world knocks you down—or when you fall down in full view of the world. But only for two or three weeks at a time. Your mother will pamper you and feed you your favorite meal of red beans and rice. You’ll make a practice of going home so she can liberate you again—one of the greatest gifts, along with nurturing your courage, that she will give you.”
It stands out because it resists overt sheltering, the “things will be all right” messages invoked in so many of the contributions here. Angelou instructs her younger self, like a mother or a God, as though viewing her not with the benefit of hindsight, but the knowledge that that teenager about to leave home with a baby on her hip has awareness and drive already inside her.
Other letters—Breena Clarke’s, Trisha Yearwood’s—are similarly affecting. Overall, though, the revelations here are familiar. The project, which began as an O Magazine article three years ago, stemmed from Spragins’ regret that she failed to discover her own late mother’s “underpinnings ... the joists, the frames, the foundation [of her life]”. “What did she wish she had done?” Spragins writes in her introduction. “What would have seemed important to her now that seemed unimportant at the time?” Without her mother to guide her into later life, Spragins sought to discover wisdom and life lessons from other admired women, including leaders in world industry, politics, and entertainment. They were asked to write letters to themselves at key points in their personal histories, to give their younger selves some knowing advice about how to take their next steps.
The collection works to reveal how similar we often are regardless of our circumstances. Whether you’re teenage Maya Angelou or clothing designer Eileen Fisher questioning the benefits of making it alone, your doubts correspond. Whether you’re Lisa Halaby embarking on the marriage that will make you Queen Noor of Jordan or comedic actress Jane Kaczmarek falling for a guy who rides you home on his bicycle because he can’t afford a car, you’re squirms and love struck tingles prickle corresponding places. The book reveals, in it’s novel way, that we love the same way, doubt the same way, enjoy the same way—with appreciation, for the most part, of what has passed.
At times, this shared experience is surprising. Parallels might be obvious between the lives of opera singer Beverly Sills and R&B star Macy Gray, activist Heather Mills McCartney and PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk. Not so obvious, however, are the comparable lives of women otherwise unlikely to be considered in the same thought. Gossip columnist Liz Smith shares experiences of envy and snobbery with California Senator Barbara Boxer, who shares experience in understanding personal and professional criticism with author Kitty Kelley, who shares experiences in risk-taking with Shabby Chic founder Rachel Ashwell and Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller. There’s something certainly worth knowing here about the nature of experience, how it joins and defines us, and how differently we view tragedy. Consider game show hostess Vanna White who uses her opportunity here to inform her younger self not to pose for seedy lingerie ads. At 50, this is her major regret—greatly removed from that of Heather Mills McCartney informing her younger self to house fewer indigent and abused people so as not to find herself taken advantage of.
Vanna’s letter succeeds in creating some much-needed divergence within these messages. Shared experience, it would seem considering much of the information here, produces mirrored advice. Naomi Wolf shakes things up briefly, too, electing to shout back in time at young Naomi to “INVEST FIFTY BUCKS IN THE STOCK MARKET EVERY MONTH!!” Madeleine Albright and Liz Smith get a bit flustered at their misguided others, but too few of Spragins’ contributors really take themselves to task. They guide rather than instruct, forgive rather than challenge. Perhaps it’s the cynic in me that wanted just one contributor to fire off at her onetime self for sleeping with the wrong guy, stealing from the collection plate, crossing the street to avoid the junkies. The women discuss some big life lessons, but nothing particularly damning. The lack of anything at all controversial here at times makes you wish you had these women’s problems. An inability to get on your feet after gold medal wins at the Olympics? Give me that problem! Surely, in this case and many others, space restraints and knowledge of the project’s eventual publication brought limits to just how much contributors elected to reveal. It hinders the project, giving it an all too glossy sheen of sentimentality.
Dig deep, though, and bits of wonderful, personal advice arise. Author Breena Clarke on trying things considered opposed to her talents: “Learning to swim won’t stop you from reading Shakespeare.” Girls Inc. CEO Joyce Roche: “Laboring ever more intensely shows you’re worthy of the chances you’ve been given.” Macy Gray: “You got to say ‘Fuck it’ and learn to please yourself first.” And then there’s Will & Grace actress Shelley Morrison, whose insight almost negates the book entirely: “You can’t beat yourself up for what you should have done if you weren’t equipped with the knowledge at that time.” For women with devastating regrets, there’s nothing else to say.